After homecoming, longing for home

In new film ‘Homecoming’ by Noa Maiman, teenaged children of foreign workers visit their parents’ countries of origin – only to find they’re more at home in Israel.

HOMECOMING: Nato Campo (left) meets a young cousin 311 (photo credit: COURTESY RUTH DISKIN FILMS)
HOMECOMING: Nato Campo (left) meets a young cousin 311
WHEN GERMAINE Samano goes “home,” she learns that her family thinks she might be as successful as the president of the United States. Her aunt, Brigitte, proudly tells the 16-year-old girl on her firstever visit to her relatives in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa that everyone is rooting for her success – in Israel. By being raised in the Jewish state, it seems, they expect Germaine to make it big in the world.
“Grandpa says you’ll be our Obama,” Brigitte tells the teenager in the film “Homecoming,” a documentary about the children of foreign workers living in Israel.
To many in the developing world, the United States and its president of Kenyan descent symbolizes the prospect of achieving a better life. But to this Congolese family, succeeding in Israel is just as good. Samano, along with two other teenagers, Autoniel Sandoval and Nato Campo are the protagonists of “Homecoming.”
The three make a fascinating trio. Germaine (Gigi) was born to parents from the Congo who came to work in Israel and was raised here; Autoniel (Otto) was born to parents from Peru, and Nato, to a family from the Philippines.
The youths speak Hebrew with the flair of native-born Sabras, study hard at Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin School, and are active members of the Scouts movement, where, during assemblies, they sing the Israeli national anthem with abounding passion. Until now, they have never been outside Israel. “Homecoming” follows each of them as they pay a visit to their parents’ homelands and encounter the world that their parents left behind.
The film shows the youngsters on a journey that is filled with surprises, which are likely to be even more surprising to those Israeli viewers who are not aware of the affinity that these children have for Israel.
Deportation of the children of foreignworkers is a hotly-debated issue in Israel. While some bemoan the influx of non- Jewish foreigners that, they fear, will overwhelm the Jewish character of the state, others call on society to accept these children as Israelis. Last year, officials announced that they would deport some 1,200 children; in response to the public outcry, the government reduced that number to 400, and only a few of those children have been, in fact, deported to their parents’ countries of origin.
The debate has also been gaining international attention, especially after the film “Strangers No More” won a Hollywood Academy Award earlier this year in the category of short documentary and the principal of the Bialik-Rogozin School, Keren Tal, was recently awarded the 2011 Charles Bronfman Jewish Humanitarian Award.
“Homecoming” does not take the issue on directly. But filmmaker Noa Maiman tells The Report, “The film was an attempt to show what would happen to these children, who so strongly identify with Israel and have almost no connection with their parents’ countries, if they were forced to permanently leave Israel.”
MAIMAN’S DECISION TO avoid political commentary and to simply present the children’s impressions in their own words is what gives the film its poignancy and persuasive power.
During the first part of the film, as the children prepare for their departure, comments from their parents provide insight into how members of the older generation view their lives in Israel. When Otto asks his mother, Ophelia, if she misses Peru, her answer is unequivocal.
“I don’t miss anything,” she says, while serving dinner to Otto and the rest of their family. “All I knew [in Peru] was poverty and now that I am in Israel, I have everything. What is there to miss?” Her voice breaks up and her eyes steam with tears. The “everything” that she refers to includes both the food on the dinner table – an ordinary Israeli meal of tomato and cucumber salad, other vegetables and baked chicken – and the modest apartment in which the family lives, near Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Otto listens quietly as Ophelia recalls that her own mother “didn’t have a house, she lived in a straw hut.”
A few days later, Otto is traveling through the Peruvian desert on a bumpy road in an old car, driven by his uncle who lived in Israel for several years until he was deported 10 years ago. “In the ten years there’s been almost no progress,” his uncle sighs as they reach the family homestead, where Otto’s grandmother still lives. “Everything is the same. My kids ask: ‘Dad, when will they pave the road?’”
Otto looks around at the shantytown conditions of his family’s village that abuts the side of a sandy hill. As a rooster squawks at his feet and his uncle points to a tin roof covered with plastic that leaks when it rains, the expression on his face is different from what it was when he was filmed in Israel. “I thought she [my mother] was exaggerating,” observes Otto. “She said it was hard here but then I came here and it was a shock overnight. I went from a good place to the poorest place on earth.”
Nato in the Philippines and Gigi in the Congo have similar experiences. They meet relatives who tell them that there are days when there is no food to eat; many earn less in a month working at skilled jobs than people in Israel receive for a day’s work at the minimum wage.
They have reached three different continents, but the sights and sounds of abject poverty are stunning in their similarity: unpaved roads, barefoot children playing among puddles and rocks, no indoor plumbing, unemployed adults sitting idly on the street outside corrugated-roofed homes and screeching roosters and chickens everywhere, indoors and outdoors.
For Otto, coming to grips with the stark reality of his mother’s previous life comes full circle when his grandmother, overcome with emotion, shows him the straw hut where she used to live and her new home next to it. “Your mother went to work and built this house for me, bit by bit. She bought me spoons, plates, pots… she never forgets me, my daughter, she sends me things.”
As we see Otto comforting his grandmother, and later on describing what life is like in Israel to his relatives, he seems mature beyond his 17 years, with qualities that make him seem destined for leadership. He describes with admiration how his mother spent her first year in Israel working from five in the morning until eight at night; he grows excited as he mentions his hope to be accepted into an Israel Defense Forces paratroop unit and he sums it all up when he concludes, “Now I’m an Israeli in every way.”
Nato and Gigi also come across as being energetic young people, determined to get ahead in life and make a positive contribution to society. They are excited to return to Tel Aviv. “This is where I belong,” says Gigi.
THEIR STRONG ATTACHMENT TO Israel made a deep impression on filmmaker Maiman, 31, who produced and co-directed the film with Orna Ben-Dor. “I was surprised to see how unconnected they were over there. They just wanted to come back to Israel,” Maiman asserts.
Maiman, 31, has worked for a number of years with volunteer organizations campaigning to allow the children of foreign workers born in Israel to continue to live here, but she is better known to the public through her career as an actress and model.
Those who are familiar with her as one of the stars of the telenovella series “Pilots’ Wives” and of the feature film “Lost Islands,” or who are acquainted with her pixyish good looks from fashion ads and TV commercials may be surprised to learn about her role as an activist filmmaker. But a poster that hangs on the wall behind her desk in her Herzliya Pituach office for “OY Mama,” a previous film directed by Maiman, hints at how she became involved in the struggle to prevent the deportation of foreign workers’ children.
“OY Mama” tells the story of Maiman’s elderly grandmother Fira, now 96, who reached her ripe old age through the kindness of two non-Jews – a Polish woman who saved her life during the Holocaust and a Filipino woman, Magna, who has been her caregiver for more than a decade. When Fira became concerned that Firita, Magna’s 4-year-old daughter and Fira’s beloved, adoptive granddaughter, was under threat of deportation, Maiman decided it was time to take action.
“My grandmother is alive because of her [Magna] and that’s how I got involved in this cause,” says Maiman, who speaks in rapid bursts, with the smiling poise of someone who is frequently photographed.
“When I was younger, I was obsessed with many of the issues surrounding the Holocaust, especially why many people, unlike the Polish woman who saved my mother, didn’t do anything,” she adds.
She points out that although she has spent the last five years in the television and film industry, her original career path was aimed at politics and social action. “I was very much affected when I was young by the assassination of [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin and I consequently became active in the youth branch of the Labor Party, eventually becoming the national chairperson.”
After serving as an officer in the IDF, she studied history and philosophy at Tel Aviv University and then completed a graduate degree in Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics. Only then did she begin to study filmmaking.
“I founded my own production company in order to try to find a way to combine political activity with the world of entertainment,” she says, noting that her company shouldered a significant share of the approximate NIS 500,000 ($144,000) cost of producing “Homecoming.”
Asked how she was affected by visiting the impoverished villages that she filmed, she shakes her head in bewilderment. “I was in shock. We met people who have no food, who depend on relatives working as waiters to bring home leftovers so that they would have something to eat,” she says, adding that during the brief intervals in Israel between trips she found herself in a state of distress.
“Each time for the two days we were back here I couldn’t stop eating,” she recalls. “Not that we didn’t have food during the production, it was just some sort of psychological effect.”
Maiman is cautious in assessing the impact “Homecoming” has had, but points out that not long after the film was shown nationwide on Channel 10 television the government voted to delay its original decision to deport the children. She says she is pleased that the government eventually reversed its decision, though disappointed that it is enforcing restrictive criteria that are severely limiting the number of the children allowed to stay in Israel. She remains incensed about the “incomprehensible behavior” of some of the proponents of deporting the children, especially Interior Minister Eli Yishai, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
“It was very sad to see him demonize the foreign workers and taint them with stigmas connected to disease and crime. It just harkens back to the demagoguery of another era that I prefer not to recall…” she says, her voice trailing off while her eyes glance in the direction of the “OY Mama” poster.
Maimon suggests that Israelis ought to be proud that the country has developed to the point where it is able to both benefit from and accommodate people of divergent backgrounds.
“I’d like to think that we are building a society here where showing a little bit of humanity comes before anything else,” she concludes.